Free speech is one of the most significant principles of democracy. The purpose of this freedom is to allow an individual to attain self-fulfillment, assist in the discovery of truth, strengthen the capacity of a person to take decisions and facilitate a balance between stability and social change. However, there have been many incidents in recent times where “misguided” people have been termed “anti-national”. The sentiment could have been demonstrated through a slogan, a cheer, a statement, protest against a nuclear power project, or an innocuous post on social media. In all these cases, the state, across regimes, has filed charges of sedition.
Sedition can’t be applied to instances of criticism of the government or a political functionary. More importantly, words alone are not enough for such a charge to be stricken. The inducement to violence is the most crucial ingredient of the offense of sedition. Recently, Delhi Police filed a charge sheet against 10 people, including Kanhaiya Kumar, Umar Khalid, and Anirban Bhattacharya, in a sedition case for allegedly raising “anti-national slogans” during an event in the JNU.
Hereby discussing the concept of sedition and issues related to it.
What is Sedition?
- Sedition contains three actions, namely, an act, conduct or a speech. All these actions are intended to incite people to rebel against the state, government or the nation.
- According to the section 124-A, comments expressing strong disapproval of the ‘administrative or other action of the Government without exciting or attempting to excite hatred, contempt or disaffection, do not constitute an offense under this section.
- The law was originally drafted by Thomas Macaulay.
- It was not a part of IPC in the 1860s and was even dropped from the law. It was introduced in the IPC in the year 1870.
- Many Indian freedom fighters, including Mahatma Gandhi and Bal Gangadhar Tilak, were charged with sedition during the freedom struggle.
- The main reason behind the continuation of the Sedition act after independence was to prevent the misuse of free speech (reasonable restriction) that would be aimed at inciting hatred and violence.
- Freedom of speech often poses difficult questions, like the extent to which the State can regulate individual conduct. Since an individual‘s autonomy is the foundation of this freedom; any restriction on it is subject to great scrutiny.
- However, reasonable restrictions can always be imposed on this right in order to ensure its responsible exercise and to ensure that it is equally available to all citizens.
- Article 19(1)(a) guarantees freedom of speech and expression. However, this freedom is subjected to certain restrictions namely, interests of the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, decency or morality or in relation to contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offense.
- Though it is argued that this law is a colonial vestige, Indian courts have upheld its constitutionality.
- Kedar Nath judgment upholds the restrictions imposed by Section 124-A (sedition) of IPC on the fundamental right to free speech and expression. But the court makes it clear that such restraints apply only to “acts involving intention or tendency to create disorder or disturbance of law and order or incitement to violence”.
- Judgment explains what it means by “acts inciting violence against the government”. “Any written or spoken words, etc., which have implicit in them the idea of subverting government by violent means, which are compendiously included in the term ‘revolution’, have been made penal by the section in question”.
- Apex Court held that “comments, however strongly worded, expressing disapprobation of actions of the government” and which shun violence are not sedition.
- However, far more alarming potentialities include calls for violent revolutions seeking to overthrow the government, appeals for a separate state, For Example- Demand for separate Khalistan or separate Kashmir and other atrocity propaganda, which does not qualify as protected speech and has the ability to denude the legitimacy of an elected government.
- The foremost objection to the provision of sedition is that its definition remains too wide. Under the present law, strong criticism against government policies and personalities, slogans voicing disapprobation of leaders and stinging depictions of an unresponsive or insensitive regime are all likely to be treated as ‘seditious’, and not merely those that overtly threaten public order or constitute actual incitement to violence.
- According to the National Crime Records Bureau, 35 cases of sedition (all over India) were reported in 2016.
- However, as long as sedition is seen as a reasonable restriction on free speech on the ground of preserving public order, it will be difficult to contain its mischief. There can only be two ways of undoing the harm it does to citizens’ fundamental rights: it can be amended so that there is a much narrower definition of what constitutes sedition, but the far better course is to do away with it altogether.
- Despite demands to scrap it, the law of sedition remains enshrined in our statute book till today. In the last one decade, along with many other draconian laws of colonial vintage, it has become extremely popular with our rulers.
- Beyond the high-profile urban cases, the reach of Section 124-A has extended even to faraway places. An entire village in Kudankulam, Tamil Nadu had sedition cases slapped against it for resisting a nuclear power project. Adivasis of Jharkhand, resisting displacement, topped the list of those slapped with sedition in 2014. Most of these cases don’t end in conviction. But when the legal process itself becomes the punishment, the slapping of sedition charges is an attempt to browbeat the protesters into submission.
- Draconian laws such as the Section 124-A only serve to give a legal veneer to the regime’s persecution of voices and movements against oppression by casting them as anti-national.
- Mere criticism of the government, or of governance, indeed of the institutions of governance, however harsh, will not qualify as sedition. From a layman’s perspective, the issue of sedition would come into play only if the territorial integrity of India as well as the sovereignty of the country is questioned by an individual or a group.
- In other words, sedition is relevant only in the context of a demand for secession. ‘Waging war’ with India or other inimical acts against the country will be met by other legal provisions but cannot replace 124-A if a situation arises.
- India’s slow moving judicial system ensures prolonged delays in disposing of cases. Meanwhile, people charged with sedition have to surrender their passports, are not eligible for government jobs, must produce themselves in the court as and when required, and spend money on legal fees. “The charges have rarely stuck in most of the cases, but the process itself becomes the punishment
- Balancing freedom of expression with collective national interest is one of the key ingredients of this law.
- However, to uphold the idea of democracy, India should keep away the word sedition from its statute books.
- Issue of sedition would come into play only if the territorial integrity of India as well as the sovereignty of the country are questioned by an individual or a group.
- The word ‘sedition’ is thus extremely nuanced and needs to be applied with caution. It is like a cannon that ought not to be used to shoot a mouse; but the arsenal also demands possession of cannons, mostly as a deterrent, and on occasion for shooting.
Relevance of Sedition Law
Supreme Court Judgment
Why the law should be scrapped?
What should be included in Sedition?
SEDITION LAWS IN INDIA A RANGE OF LAWS ON THE STATUTE BOOKS THAT DEAL WITH SEDITION
INDIAN PENAL CODE (IPS), 1860 SECTION 124A, Which includes terms like “hatred” and “contempt”, along with “disaffection”
CRIMINAL PROCEDURE CODE (CRPC). 1973 Contains Section 95 which gives the govt the right to forfeit material punishable under Section 124A
UNLAWFUL ACTIVITIES (PREVENTION) ACT (UAPA). 1967 For claims of secession, questioning territorial integrity and causing disaffection against India.
PREVENTION OF SEDITIOUS MEETINGS ACT. 1911 Criminalises meetings likely to promote sedition or disaffection. Continues to be on our statute books.